Interview: Gemma Hayes

Posted: 23/11/2010 in Uncategorized

***As published on State.ie on November 22nd 2010***

Gemma Hayes is back for good… almost. She abandoned the LA lifestyle in August and moved home to Ireland – a major readjustment for the Tipperary native. “I just don’t know if it’s the right decision,” she ponders. “I’m going back to LA soon, just for a few weeks, and I hope I’ll get there and go ‘yeah, I totally made the right decision to come home’ – but I just feel like I need to go back.”

With the roar of the Celtic Tiger now muffled by doom and gloom, the Ireland that she has returned to is much changed from the one she left behind. Economy aside, it’s the music industry which Hayes notices a major change in; a now-thriving scene full of new venues, new acts, and new ideas. “I was listening to the radio the other night and hearing all of these Irish acts and I didn’t know one of them,” she admits. “But they were amazing – this really, really cool music. There’s a lot out there.”

At the centre of this buzzing Irish music scene is DIY culture, something in which Hayes has immersed herself since parting ways with her record label in 2006 following the release of her second album, The Roads Don’t Love You. She independently financed the production of follow up album The Hollow of the Morning. “It was bloody hard,” she recalls, “but I think it’s the record labels that need the artists more than the artists need the labels these days – artists can make their own music in their bedroom and release it online themselves, they’re not helpless without the ‘big machine’ of a record label anymore.” However, Hayes doesn’t envy new acts starting out on that road. “I was blessed that I had a foundation because of the big machine – I can’t imagine what it’s like for somebody starting out fresh and doing it DIY.”

Although label influence is not something that she misses, Hayes still recognises the benefits when it comes to distribution. “I like the idea of recording an album independently, then using a record label to distribute it. So you’re not signing your name away for five years – it’s just literally ‘I need your machine to get my stuff out there’. I think that’s a good balance between the two.” So is that the plan for Hayes’ next album? “I hope so. The album is not very straightforward, musically – it’s definitely going to belong on a small label. So if there is a small label that wants to distribute it, then brilliant – but who knows?”

“…When you stand there and play it, all of a sudden you hear all the flaws – and you can see people starting to get bored and you know you’ve lost them.”

Hayes is hard at work on her as-yet-untitled fourth album, which she is recording in the Black Box studio in France with producer David Odlum. Originally planned for release in September 2010, this date was pushed back to allow time to get everything just right. Throughout the recording process, Hayes has taken the time to road-test her new material by playing small acoustic shows around the country. “You can create all you like – but you don’t know if your songs are good or not unless you have a reaction.” And have there been any drastic reactions to the new material? “Oh, yes. There’s a song that I tried a few weeks ago, and it died a terrible death on the stage,” she recalls. “When you stand there and play it, all of a sudden you hear all the flaws – and you can see people starting to get bored and you know you’ve lost them.”

The acoustic shows have also proved useful in helping Hayes find her sound for the album. New songs such as ‘Tokyo’ and ‘Shock to the System’ have been winning audiences over in their acoustic form, which has meant a return to the drawing board in studio. “When I started recording the album, the songs were full-on electronic – keyboards and drum loops, and huge ‘band’ songs with everything from timpanis to glockenspiels. Then I started to play them live on just acoustic guitar – and I really liked them that way too. But they’re totally different beasts – so I’m hoping I can try to merge the two together, so it’s not just acoustic, but not as ‘produced’ either.” Hayes cites Patrick Watson, Beach House, and The Tallest Man On Earth as the main acts that she’s been inspired by recently – an eclectic mix of rhythmic influences which makes her next album all the more intriguing.

Her face lights up at the mention of a full band tour in 2011 – Gemma is keen to pick up the pace and rock venues around the country. “The acoustic stuff is great,” she enthuses, “but I’ve been doing it for ages, and I really miss being part of a group and having other sounds on the stage.” So who might be creating those ‘other sounds’ on stage with her next year? “I’d love to play with Joe Chester again, and I’d love if Ann Scott would be in the band – but at the same time, they’re their own artists and doing their own thing, and I respect that – so I don’t know!”

“…I’m tired of TRYING to get my songs played on the radio, because it’s just not happening naturally. If a song takes off – brilliant; but I won’t be putting all my eggs into that basket for this album. My songs don’t get played on the radio. They just don’t.”

Hayes’ outlook on how her work is perceived has also changed. She’s not striving for a killer hit single, focusing on the album as a body of work instead of as a group of individual tracks which might catch the attention of radio DJs. Does she feel there’s a need for a quota system in Irish radio stations to ensure that a proportion of airtime during peak hours includes Irish acts? Not quite. “Daytime radio shows play pop music – and if there are a lot of great Irish pop acts out there then they should be played”, she says. “There’s a lot of obscure Irish music out there, which is great – but it’s not daytime music. It’d be like me saying ‘play my music because I’ve got blue eyes’! I think it has to be because a song is good, and the song suits the programme, and it’s by an Irish artist – not just because it’s by an Irish artist”. So will she be targeting radio with her next release? “Not at all. I’m tired of TRYING to get my songs played on the radio, because it’s just not happening naturally. If a song takes off – brilliant; but I won’t be putting all my eggs into that basket for this album. My songs don’t get played on the radio. They just don’t.”

Gemma Hayes’ songs may not get much attention on the airwaves – but they’ve certainly made their mark via television, on some of the biggest shows in America. Since signing up with TV sync company Secret Road, Hayes’ music has featured in recent series of Grey’s Anatomy, ER, One Tree Hill, Private Practice and The Vampire Diaries – and has seen the benefits in resulting single download sales. “That kind of exposure is amazing – you get to reach so many people, instantly,” she says. “The music culture in America is song-based. People aren’t interested in an album. On iTunes they’ll just literally click to buy the song that they know. In Ireland it’s different – if someone likes a song, they’ll buy the full album or EP. But in America, if they like a song, they’ll buy THAT song.”

It’s not just her back-catalogue that’s garnering the attention of American TV shows. Secret Road, eager to hear how Hayes’ new material is progressing, requested a demo of a new song – a song which has now found its way onto ABC series Pretty Little Liars. The demo version of ‘Brittle Winter’ (which she recorded and engineered herself) proved a winner with the show’s producers, who want to use it in its raw un-mastered form, much to Gemma’s bemusement. “There’s loads of pops, there’s loads of hisses – it’s NOT the way I want it!” she exclaims. She may not be happy with the unfinished state of the song – but it’s too good an offer to pass up. “It’s so great, because it helps me finance the making of the album itself – because it’s not like I’m selling loads of records”, she laments.

“I think art should be free – but, when it’s somebody’s livelihood, people should realise that it’s NOT free, you know?”

The subject of selling records inevitably raises the issue of illegal downloading. Hayes maintains that it’s about re-educating people who’ve been taught that music is free. “I think art should be free – but, when it’s somebody’s livelihood, people should realise that it’s NOT free, you know?” Hayes is of the viewpoint that if an artist puts money into creating an album, they’re not looking to get rich – they’re just looking to make a living and put the money back in to making their next album. “It’s sort of debilitating to have people take your stuff for free,” she admits.

But don’t a lot of artists now make their living mainly from touring? “That argument is definitely null and void,” she declares. “If you’re an Irish act with an Irish following, there are only a handful of venues that you can play, and you usually have to leave about six months before you go back to the same city again. And there’s a huge cost when it comes to touring.”

Such pressures have encouraged Hayes to focus on getting her music to the masses by alternative means, and following on from the success of having her music featured in TV shows, she has recently also ventured into writing songs for the big screen. When approached to write songs for forthcoming movie Janie Jones starring Abigail Breslin, Hayes found herself not only in the totally new position of writing songs for someone else to sing – but being requested to do so from the point of view of a 13 year old girl. She stepped back into the shoes of her teenage self – “awkward, and self-conscious, and incredibly sensitive” – but the resulting songs turned out to be too good. Gemma was instructed that the character in question can’t really sing or play guitar very well – so she had to take a different approach. “I just turned the guitar upside down and tried to play it the opposite way,” she recalls, “and all of a sudden it sounded like I was learning all over again.” Hayes recorded the songs, singing them as bluntly as she could – and they loved it. But it must be strange working on songs for someone else to sing? “It’s very weird… It feels like I was just a surrogate mother or something!” she muses. “But I’d absolutely love to do more of it in the future.”

Someone who holds a different vision for Gemma Hayes’ future is Louis Walsh, who offered some career advice when the two met recently. Although she is quick to declare that she respects Walsh because he is completely unapologetic for his point of view, she laughs as she recalls his words of wisdom: “Gemma, I don’t understand, what are you doing? Why bother writing songs? Just get somebody else to do it for you! What you need to do is date a celebrity, build up your profile – forget about writing songs.” Let’s call that ‘Plan B’, Louis…

Hayes will return to the studio in January to put the finishing touches on the new album – which is expected to be released towards the end of February or early March. Hayes sees no need to rush. She admits that although she’s proud of the songs on 2005’s The Roads Don’t Love You, she knew it wasn’t right at the time. “That album is out there for the rest of my life… There are glaringly obvious things that I was unhappy with on that album, and I let it go – and because that’s happened to me once, I’m just so sure that I never want that to happen again”.

“I want to be able to say ‘yeah, I LOVE that album, I’m so proud of it!’ I want that feeling… and that takes time.”

Advertisements
Comments
  1. […] Gemma Hayes is currently putting the finishing touches on her as-yet-untitled fourth album, which was recorded in the Black Box studio in France with long-time producer David Odlum. Originally planned for release in September 2010, this date was pushed back to allow time for Hayes to get everything just right – since falling out of love with major record label and pursuing the DIY route, she sees no need to rush. Throughout the recording process, Hayes has taken the time to road-test her new material by playing small acoustic shows around the country. Of the new songs showcased a these shows, there are two clear standouts – ‘Shock to the System’ is a textbook Gemma Hayes ballad, delivered with such passion and conviction that if you didn’t know better, you might think it’s a song that she’s been playing for years; and ‘Tokyo’, a more up-tempo tune, instantly catchy and likely to be the lead single. Only small tasters of the album as a whole – but strong indications that the album will be worth the wait. […]

  2. […] believe the post-SXSW hype surrounding Charles Bradley, hear the long-awaited new material from Gemma Hayes performed with a full band, rock out to Ham Sandwich through cascading confetti, and partake in the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s